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Mysterious Keys Unlock Surreal Landscapes In 'What Is Yours Is Not Yours'

Helen Oyeyemi is one of literature's weird sisters. She's kin to the uncanny likes of Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson and Jeanette Winterson, whose names trail down the back covers of her books like a pagan invocation.

Her nouveau Gothic stories are "out there": long and winding, set in surreal landscapes, and elaborately peopled with ghosts, goddesses and grinning puppets. They seem deliberately designed to make a reader feel ... lost. But, even the most baffling stories in Oyeyemi's new collection, called What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, leave a deep impression — like a scar that stubbornly refuses to fade.

The single clue that leads a reader through the labyrinth of this collection is the presence of keys in every one of the nine stories here. Whether they unlock a door or a diary or a nightmare, keys propel Oyeyemi's narratives further into the twilight zone.

In the opening tale, "Books and Roses," a dark-complexioned baby is abandoned beneath a statue of a Black Madonna in a monk's chapel in Catalonia. A golden chain with a key is fastened around the baby's neck — the key to her identity, perhaps?

Another story, called, "'Sorry' Doesn't Sweeten Her Tea," opens in "The House of Locks," — an off-kilter cottage where none of the doors or windows can be closed without force. The waywardness of that house — the refusal of those doors and windows to click into place — mimics the sinister waywardness of Oyeyemi's storytelling style. For instance, what promises on page one to be a tale of a house askew, rambles off into another story altogether about a broken-hearted young girl disillusioned with her pop idol who's been exposed as a violent abuser of women. The idol seems untouchable until he's hexed into doing public penance on the Internet by a conjure woman, with only the very faintest connection to that house.

Sometimes, I have to say, the sinuous style of Oyeyemi's storytelling totally bewildered me; but when the tales are alive enough — and many of them are — I was willing to surrender my expectations of closure, of that "click" of the door, that more traditional short stories usually end on.

What is always a sure thing with Oyeyemi is her mastery of imagery and language — both of which are capable of being shocks to the system. One of the strongest stories here is called "Drownings", which takes place in a strange kingdom presided over by a tyrant. Anyone who angers this tyrant is drowned in the remote "gray marshlands" outside the city. Here's a description of those marshlands:

Those keys again.

While much of what she writes about is decidedly macabre, Oyeyemi is also capable of nailing more mundane subjects, like the mysteries of human relationships, with the deadly accuracy of her language. Talking about the disconnect between a mother and daughter in a story called "Is Your Blood As Red As This?" Oyeyemi says: "There was affection between mother and daughter, but they'd given up trying to express it. ... It was the usual struggle between one who loves by accepting burdens and one who loves by refusing to be one."

That emotionally wise observation is folded into the larger eerie tale, which is about a school of puppetry where the puppets are described as "one step away from living, always one step away." Oyeyemi's writing, in contrast, is so irradiated with supernatural energy that, to cite the title of the classic creepy TV show, this whole collection feels "one step beyond."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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